NYU's Unnecessary Apology

Yesterday morning, I received an email from the New York University Office of Public Affairs. (I am a grad student at NYU.*) The email read:

We apologize that John Sexton's memo to the NYU community about Academic Year 2010-11 was sent out after sundown on Friday, September 17.  We were aware of the start of Yom Kippur and had intended to be sure it was distributed early on Friday; however, because of technical problems and miscommunications, the memo was mistakenly sent on Friday evening. Please accept our apologies.

Upon receiving this email I was -- and I remain -- completely baffled, genuinely perplexed about what NYU had done for which it needed to apologize. What on earth is the problem?

Both NYU's student newspaper and the Jewish Telegraph Agency have covered this email and apology as news. (The NYU student newspaper I understand. As for the JTA... well, the fact that they covered these two emails can be seen either as a testament to the JTA's outstanding thoroughness, or as a sign of the Jewish community's obsessive naval-gazing, depending upon one's general mood.) But neither story clearly identifies what, precisely, NYU theoretically did wrong.

The JTA article cites "poor timing". But why, pray tell, was the timing "poor"? The story doesn't say, leaving the matter entirely to the reader's speculation. NYUNews.com notes that, "According to the customs of the holiday, those who observe the Jewish holy day must refrain from eating, drinking and using electronics from sundown on Sept. 17 to sundown on Sept. 18." But the story fails to identify how, specifically, NYU's sending an email runs afoul of Yom Kippur observance. There are a number of possible answers, but I hope to demonstrate below that all of them are quite ridiculous. Let us take each of these potential objections in turn:

Objection #1: NYU broke the laws of Yom Kippur by sending the email.

Response #1A: NYU is not Jewish, and so is not obligated in the laws of Yom Kippur. (NYU is also not a person for that matter, but set that aside, because if NYU were a Jewish institution, most Jews would probably still expect it to observe Yom Kippur. However, NYU is a non-sectarian university.)

Response #1B: NYU also breaks Shabbat all the time. This email went out at 10:36 on a Friday that happened to be Yom Kippur, but what if it had been an official email on a Friday in December, at 4:30 pm? Every winter, when Shabbat begins during the standard business day on Friday, I imagine official NYU emails go out on Shabbat with some frequency. Then consider Shavuot, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Pesach, which frequently occur on business days, and on which I am confident NYU sends out copious official emails. If we're going to complain about emails being sent when Jews are forbidden to work (which, I maintain, we have no business doing in the first place), then we should at least be consistent, and complain all year long.

Objection #2: The individual who sent the email might be Jewish, and broke Yom Kippur by sending it.

Response #2A: The email went out under the name of NYU President John Sexton, who (despite the fact that his late wife, Lisa Goldberg z"l, was Jewish) is Catholic, at least if his Wikipedia page is to be trusted.

Response #2B: Even if it was a Jew working for NYU who pushed the send button on Yom Kippur, that was her/his personal choice to desecrate the holiday. While I am saddened that any Jew would choose to work on Yom Kippur, I am not the least bit "offended" by NYU as an institution, which has still, under this scenario, done nothing wrong.

Response #2C: We don't have any specific reason to believe that it was a Jew who sent the email. Are we taking a position that anytime a secular institution which employs Jews does something electronically on Yom Kippur, it is a problem because a Jewish employee might be involved?

Response #2D: And if we do have a problem with NYU doing anything at all on Yom Kippur because a Jew might be involved, see Response #1B: shouldn't we say the same of Shabbat, and all holidays?

Objection #3: NYU caused Jewish students and staff to break the laws of Yom Kippur by receiving the email.

Response #3A: Is there some hidden verse of Torah about Yom Kippur email which I've never heard before? ("It is a sabbath of solemn rest unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls; it is a statute forever. Neither you, nor your household, nor the stranger who is among you, nor your laptop, nor your printer, nor your fax, nor your Google account, shall do any manner of work...")

Response #3B: No, nobody broke Yom Kippur by receiving the email. Yeshivas Ohr Sameach, a right-wing Orthodox outreach institution with excellent bona fides in halachic stringency, notes (in the name of Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg) that it is completely permissible for a Jew in New York to send an email on Friday to a Jew in Jerusalem, where it is already Shabbat. Presumably, implicitly, there is no problem at all with that Jerusalem Jew retrieving the email after Shabbat, even though it arrived in her inbox on Shabbat. Receiving emails on Shabbat or Yom Tov is like setting up your lights on a timer; it is an automated process that doesn't break the solemnity of the day because you don't actually do anything to control it on the day of rest itself.

Objection #4: By conducting "business as usual" on Yom Kippur, the University sent the message that Jewish students are marginal and their highest holy day doesn't matter.

Response #4A: I think in order to have this response you need to be actively looking for things to be offended over. In which case, can we consider turning our energies toward matters of important substance instead?

Response #4B: What actually matters is that observant Jews have full access and ability to participate in NYU without compromising their religious life. This email does nothing to hinder Jewish participation in NYU life. So what's the problem?

Response #4C: The apology email went out at 11 am on a Sunday, which many Christians consider the Sabbath, or Lord's Day. Christian interpretations differ as to the necessity or nature of work restrictions on Sunday, but many denominations are quite strict, and some Christians might find this official apology email offensive coming, as it does, on the Christian Sabbath. Should NYU send out a new apology email about that? Or should we instead simply recognize that NYU is a huge and diverse university, with a large number of religions represented in its staff and student body?

Those are the four potential objections I can think of, all of them baseless. So am I missing something else? Is there some other reason a person could be offended by an email sent by a secular institution on Yom Kippur? Let me know.

So why do I bring this up, and pay a trivial matter more attention yet? Because the sad fact is that NYU wasn't being paranoid when they issued an apology for this non-transgression. There probably are Jews who managed somehow to be offended by (horror of horrors) the timing of an email update.

My fellow Jews, I say this with great love: we are a difficult bunch. We are so opinionated, so bold, so diverse and so eager to fight the good fight with all the righteous indignation we can muster that the Gentile world could be forgiven for feeling that, no matter what they do, some of us will be offended.

And let me add, I love those qualities of our people. These qualities gave us what it takes to smash idols and proclaim God's justice, to make enormous contributions to world ideas and culture, to stand up for our rights and for the rights of others. It takes difficult people to do revolutionary things.

I'm just saying: let's make sure our righteous indignation is focused on things that matter most. Iran is on course to build a nuclear bomb. There are millions of people enslaved, and millions more in crushing poverty. There are terrorists bent on destroying Israel and America, and extremists bent on destroying civil liberties. Are we really, really getting offended about emails being sent four hours into Yom Tov?

For some perspective, let's take a look back through the BJPA archives to another High Holiday season: September 1958. Albert J. Weiss of the ADL, writing in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service,discussed quotas and other forms of outright admissions discrimination against Jews at many hundreds of American universities. If anyone can read this piece, and then still manage to be in a huff about EmailGate, then I quite simply marvel at their superhuman powers of huffery.

 

*In the interest of full disclosure I should note that, in addition to being an NYU student, as an employee of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner, I am on the University's payroll, and indeed, my contributions to this blog are in that capacity. I should also note that I am the recipient of a fellowship named for University President John Stexton's late wife, Lisa Goldberg, zichrona livracha. All that being said, however, I promise that I wrote this posting on my own behalf, based on my own true reactions and judgments, which I believe to be fair, despite my ties to NYU.

Generation Gap?

The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs recently published an interview with BJPA director Steven M. Cohen as part of their Changing Jewish Community Series. In that piece, Cohen shares reflections from his decades of work in Jewish demography, with a particular focus on what 'younger Jews' (under 40 - being Jewish is like drinking the fountain of youth, is there another community so generous in its definition of young?) are like today.

The interview contains a lot of tidbits that probably won't surprise people - younger Jews tend to feel less attached to Zionism and Israel, tend to place a lower value on denominational and ideological affiliation, to resist coercive expectations, to more highly value choice and individuality, and to place emphasis on Jewish principles and culture rather than Jewish security.

But one of the more unusual and most interesting aspects of the interview is Prof. Cohen's self-reflectiveness as a baby boomer looking outside and forwards from his own generation.

"In the year 2000, together with Arnold Eisen, now chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary [JTS], I had written The Jew Within.[2] It explained how our generation, the Baby Boomers, differed from that of our parents who came of age during the Depression. After finishing the book, I honestly thought that American Judaism had taken individualism to the most extreme form possible. I couldn't imagine that there could be even further growth of this version of American Jewish individualism.

The idea that baby boomers see/saw themselves as the pinnacle of civilization is a common enough critique. Is Professor Cohen's apparent conclusion that the next generation has done a similar thing as his own, only taken it further, another instance of that, or its opposite?

Given my own background and the way I view such matters, I regard the current younger generations as extending the principles of the Jewish sovereign self that Arnold Eisen and I first described in The Jew Within. They are extending and elaborating the major elements we discerned: autonomy, volunteerism, personalism, nonjudgmentalism, and journeyism. As I said earlier, I just could not imagine anyone taking those principles any further. It never occurred to me that the next generation would, albeit with firm and passionate Jewish commitment, take the principles of individualism and sovereign self even further than we had observed among Boomer types in the mid-nineties.

Studies of secular society have shown that there is in fact less of a generation gap between the boomers (especially later boomers) and their children than there had been between the boomers and their own parents. Cohen's interview notes that a lot of the support for the new kind of Jewish ritual, work and culture that the younger generation is creating comes from established Jewish organizations. Interestingly, too, the younger generation often agrees with the boomers that the boomers did it (whatever it is) better!

If we accept Cohen's view of the situation as the younger generation following in the Boomers' footsteps (just perhaps further and faster), it does create an interesting paradox. On the one hand, this younger generation is in continuity with the Boomers, and on the other, Cohen posits that every generation tends to see itself in opposition with preceding ones:

Each wave of Jewish innovation sees itself as at once alienated from its predecessors, bringing more excitement to Jewish life, setting new norms, and overcoming unnecessary boundaries. I'm sure the founders of B'nai B'rith, Hadassah, Young Israel, and the UJA [United Jewish Appeal] all saw themselves that way. Certainly, my generation saw its elders' Jewish ways as alien, bland, and boring, and coercive around the wrong issues.

In terms of the new generation's 'alienation from its predecessors,' Cohen presents an ABC of critiques:

A stands for alienation, in that younger Jews feel alienated from conventional and longstanding Jewish institutions, customs, practices, and so forth. B refers to the sense that they find established institutional life bland and boring. It seems predictable in tone and content and populated by a predictable demographic of upper-middle-class, middle-aged, in-married, family people. C refers to the coercive features of Jewish life, especially its strong preference for in-marriage and seemingly unquestioning support for the state of Israel. And D stands for divisive. Younger Jews see their parents' generation sharply dividing Jews from non-Jews, Jews from other Jews - such as along denominational lines - putatively Jewish culture from non-Jewish culture, and Jewish institutional turf from non-Jewish turf.

So which is it? Are we in line with our parents but just don't like to see it? Were the Boomers less out of line with their parents than they thought? In terms of Jewish innovation, where does the creation of the Federation system in the very early 1900s fit in? The massive organizational effort behind early Zionism? The very creation of the denominations/movements which we're now innovating away from? Are we actually moving in some direction, or just responding to the successive cultural situations in which we find ourselves, and playing out our parent issues in the mean time? Does it always make sense to talk about trends in generational terms?

Adventures in Pluralism, Part 2: Jewish Education Beyond Denominational Boundaries

In Adventures in Pluralism, Part 1, we found that issues of Jewish conversion and Jewish peoplehood in Israeli governmental context seemed to be immune to pluralism, because there are well-populated positions on the Jewish denominational spectrum from whose perspective the application of pluralist concepts to these issues would be impossible -- that is to say, to acquiesce to pluralism would constitute an abandonment of these positions on the spectrum.

Yet there are other pluralistic activities, taking place across Jewish denominational divides, which appear to be more successful. Many of these are educational institutions, from yeshivot like Jerusalem's Pardes, to community day schools like New York's Heschel school.

It is easy to see why education might be the ideal setting for pluralism. After all, education seeks knowledge, and knowledge can be separated from values and judgements. To know something is not to endorse something, and so people with divergent values can learn together, even if they disagree about what they are learning. Writing in  the summer 2005 issue of Contact: the Journal of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundarion, Rabbi Arthur Green quotes Rabbi David Hartman on the potential for pluralist, trans-denominational Jewish learning: "As long as we are learning, we can all be together. As soon as we start davening, we go off into separate rooms." This quote comes from R' Green's article about the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, "the first full-time, trans-denominational Rabbinical school in Jewish history", of which he is Rector. "Rabbis will be better trained for having sat in classes alongside others who disagree with them on almost every issue imaginable," writes R' Green. "How better to sharpen your understanding, to hone your own point of view, than by looking at the sources in a mixed group, where opinions and readings diverge across a wide spectrum?"

The same issue of Contact contains an article by Dr. Bruce Powell, Head of School at the New Community Jewish High School in greater Los Angeles, on the success of the community day school model. "[C]ommunity schools are about ideas," writes Powell, "not ideology. They are about an honest and open dialogue on Jewish practice, philosophy and history... [W]hereas denominational schools might mandate a particular mode of prayer, a community school... might offer multiple minyan options where students can explore a plurality of spiritual modalities."

But is pluralism in education really so picture-perfect? How far apart can learning and values be pulled before one or the other is weakened? To their credit, both R' Green and Powell acknowledge that education, especially in a religious context, involves values as much as ideas. Both also describe approaches for meeting these challenges. R' Green writes:

Don't rabbis have to stand for something...? And doesn't that mean that my viewpoint is  right and yours is wrong?... Yes, a program of rabbinic studies does have to stand for something, and we clearly do. Ahavat Torah, the love of wisdom and the pursuit of Jewish learning, is the hallmark of our program. We find that it brings us together, even as we argue over the meaning of a passage... [T]here are two more areas where denominational differences have little place. One is in the growth and development of spiritual life... The same is true for activism. There is little difference between Jews when it comes to what are called mitzvot beyn adam le-havero, the good deeds we do toward our fellow humans. We all believe in reaching out to the poor, the sick and the needy. We care about the elderly and the disabled, and want to help.... Learning, spiritual work and human kindness. (Might one call them Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Hasadim?) These are areas where our rabbinical students, for all their diverse viewpoints, can work together and build a single Jewish community.

Powell writes:

Creating a non-denominational school is rife with challenge. Among the first questions we must ask ourselves is, “Upon what do we agree?” Creating a single track for prayer is hopeless; setting standard policies for the wearing of kippot, Shabbat observance, kashruth, student attire and modesty, and holiday celebrations stretches the notion of inclusivity often to a point of vagueness and uselessness. Board agreement on admission policies, especially regarding “who is a Jew” and whether or not non-Jews (whoever they may be) ought be admitted, breeds tension, at best, and dissolution in the worst cases... [T]he greatest advantage of a Jewish community school is also its greatest challenge: how to avoid trying to be everything to all and ending up with nothing — no strong views, weak knowledge base, vagueness of purpose and mission, blandness of identity, and graduates without a place to go...

The community school faces a tough order. It needs to establish clear goals and missions across a broad fabric. It needs to have a sharp and clear identity without alienating its constituents, yet be true to its pluralistic macro purpose. It needs to create trans-denominational Jews who are comfortable in their own Jewish skins and who can move with comfort and competence throughout the rich diversity of Jewish secular and denominational life. This Jewish community school challenge is, from my view, the single most invigorating and transformational moment in recent Jewish memory. It forces those of us dedicated to this awesome business of “touching the future” to once again become “God wrestlers,” grapplers, idea entrepreneurs. It causes us all to sharpen our visions, to ask if and how we ought to disturb the universe.

Both authors acknowledge, then, that Jewish education requires the articulation and promulgation of values. Interestingly, though, both also write that the way for a pluralist Jewish educational institution to meet this challenge involves the creation of something new -- in R' Green's words, to "build a single Jewish community," and in Powell's words, "to create trans-denominational Jews".

And this begs the question: if something new is being created, then is this model really a pluralistic cooperation between groups, or is it simply the creation of a new group?

Creating a new group does not require the dissolution or abandonment of the old denominations, nor the establishment of a new one. Rather, it means drawing a new line, a line that cuts across denominations, between those for whom denominational differences exist, but can be surmounted, and those for whom denominational differences are so great, and so important, that they make cooperation impossible. Those "inside the line", no matter to what denomination they belong, are members of the new group.

The mechanism used to draw this line is self-selection. Only rabbinical students who already believe in this pluralist form of learning and community will choose to enroll in Hebrew College's rabbinical program. Only families who believe in (or at least, do not object to) this kind of pluralism will enroll their children in community day schools. This element of self-selection is critical in explaining why these institutions are so conducive to pluralism while issues of peoplehood and conversion in context of Israeli policy are not: the group of Jews who wants to be involved with the state of Israel is much broader than the group that believes in pluralistic approaches to these issues. In other words, pluralism is only more "successful" in these educational contexts than in the Israeli conversion context because self-selection excludes the group for whom pluralism is impossible.

This kind of pluralism really does bridge divides between groups to some degree. But it also exposes pre-existing divisions within groups, and creates a layer of new groupings which overlaps the old.

Adventures in Pluralism, Part 1: The Other Israeli Conversion Crisis

With the recent Israeli conversion bill generating controversy related to pluralism in Jewish denominational context, and with the Cordoba House / “Ground Zero Mosque” plan generating controversy related to pluralism in interreligious context, pluralism is very much in public debate right now, whether or not the word is used explicitly in discussing these issues.

But what is pluralism? Let us consult the Oxford English Dictionary:

pluralism
noun
1. a condition or system in which two or more states, groups, principles, etc. coexist; a political theory or system of power-sharing among a number of political parties.
2. a theory or system that recognizes more than one ultimate principle.

Within these two definitions I count three basic ideas: coexistence (1), power-sharing (2), and recognition of multiple principles as legitimate(3).

Of course, these three concepts only scratch the surface of potential meanings. Wikipedia’s disambiguation page for pluralism, for its part, lists fifteen definitions or applications of the concept. Clearly, then, pluralism isn’t one thing; it is itself (appropriately enough) plural.

How, then, can we discuss it? Perhaps we ought to begin by examining pluralism in the wild, as it were – in application, or attempted application, to real situations. The BJPA features many documents on the topic of pluralism, some related to intra-Jewish matters, and some to interreligious or intercultural relations. Over the course of a few posts I intend to examine a handful of these documents in an attempt to answer these questions: what do pluralistic solutions entail; and when do they, or don't they, work?

Let us begin with a timely look back to the 1990s. In “Orthodox and Non-Orthodox: How to Square the Circle”, the prolific Daniel J. Elazar notes that the divide between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews constitutes not merely a situation of different approaches, but “two contrary understandings of Judaism”:

The Chief Rabbinate and the Israeli religious establishment, and, for that matter, probably an overwhelming majority of Israelis as well, regardless of their own religious practices, understand Judaism to be an overarching structure, an edifice erected over thousands of years, …a complex but standing structure that technically never changes but is only reinterpreted in a limited way to function within changing realities. For those who believe and observe, this edifice gives them their daily, even hourly, marching orders. For those who observe less or do not observe at all except perhaps at the very margins of the edifice, the edifice still stands and they expect Jewish individuals, when they do act in religious ways, to do so within it. To steal an example from another religion, Judaism is like a great cathedral. It stands there and delivers its religious message whether worshippers enter or not, and while there can be discussions about what are the contents of that message, the character of the edifice is unmistakable.

American non-Orthodox Jews, who are the vast majority in the United States… see Judaism from an American religious perspective that has been shaped by the Protestant experience, as a matter of personal spirituality and belief first and foremost; which means that Jews must begin by personally accepting the fundamental beliefs and traditions of Judaism in some way but then are free to apply them operationally in ways that they find meaningful and satisfying. True, Conservative Judaism accepts the existence of the edifice of Torah and halakhah, but understands Torah more as a constitution than as a detailed code, a constitution which can and must be reinterpreted in every age according to its spirit and not merely according to the plain meaning of the text or something close to it.

Reform Judaism formally does not even accept that. For it, halakhah is not binding but is merely one of the sources of Jewish religious tradition to which attention should be paid…

Addressing an earlier “conversion crisis” (which mirrors the present crisis on certain ways), Elazar endorses the solution of the Neeman Committee, which proposed in 1997 that the Israeli government

create "conversion institutes," to prepare potential converts for conversion. The institutes would be sponsored by the Jewish Agency, and operated jointly by the three denominations. Aspiring converts would attend classes at the institutes but the actual conversion would be performed under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, according to Orthodox guidelines. With the establishment of these institutes, the Reform and Conservative movements would agree not to perform conversions [in Israel] outside the framework of the institutes.

To Elazar, this solution

is so ingenious and important, precisely because it does appear to square the circle to everyone's advantage in some ways and to everyone's disadvantage in others. The Israeli rabbinical establishment will have to give up its exclusiveness by accepting Reform and Conservative involvement in common operational matters such as training for conversion, performance of marriages, and handling the provision of religious services to the Israeli Jewish population. At the same time, by having a majority in every body making decisions in those areas, they will keep control and be able to honestly claim that the decisions are halakhic from their standpoint and based on their standards. The Reform and Conservative movements and their rabbis will win a measure of recognition as partners in the Jewish religious enterprise, something that has been totally denied to them as movements in Israel in the past, but they will in turn have to accept the ultimate Orthodox power in determining what is halakhah in these matters. Orthodox Jews should be very pleased with this because it will bring Reform Judaism back to the recognition of the binding character of halakhah, at least in Israel, an achievement of no small proportions if their interest is honestly religious and not merely a question of who has political power…

In fact, I would argue that the compromise should not only be agreed to for Israel but for the rest of the world as well, thereby creating a basic and halachic uniformity for issues such as conversion and marriage. That would be a great achievement, especially if in doing so we also recognize that we do live in a world of plural expression.

Personally, I share Elazar’s enthusiasm for the Neeman Committee’s solution, and the wish that such a system could be established for the entire Jewish world. I also believe, however, that the chances of such a system being established, inside or outside Israel, are virtually nil.

First, the non-Orthodox movements do not, by and large, see their decisions about lenient requirements for conversion to Judaism as purely practical measures; they believe they are acting in accordance with important principles related to the deepest meanings of Judaism, and they point to nothing younger than the Book of Ruth as precedent and proof-text for their interpretations. While some non-Orthodox Jews might accept a compromise for the sake of unity, others will stand ready to do battle over these principles. To acquiesce to Orthodox standards of conversion would represent, for many Jews, not merely an inconvenience, but a cowardly surrender to an extremist, unwelcoming and immoral approach to conversion.

As for the Orthodox world, while certain Modern Orthodox Jews might embrace the Neeman model, many Orthodox Jews would reject it as an explicit recognition of the legitimacy of the non-Orthodox rabbinate. For these Jews, rabbinic authority is not merely a tool of logistical power; it is a sacred trust deriving from an unbroken chain of leadership which began with Moses, a mantle which has always been fiercely guarded against heterodoxy in order to ensure that the great Tradition which began at Sinai will be neither diluted nor abandoned. To cooperate with non-Orthodox rabbis in any way, for these Jews, would be an unconscionable breach in a wall at which no lesser authority than God explicitly commanded the Jewish people to stand guard.

The Neeman Committee model of cooperation, then, asks two significant positions on the Jewish denominational spectrum – one of which dominates the Israeli religious establishment, and the other of which dominates the American religious estalblishment – simply to abandon their core principles. This solution may be desirable to those of us “in the middle,” but is it really pluralism?

Returning to my three-pronged interpretation of the OED’s definition of pluralism above – coexistence (1), power-sharing (2), and recognition of multiple principles as legitimate (3) – it seems so; the Neeman Committee solution fits all three of these concepts. The proposal envisions an Israel in which Jews of all denominations continue to practice (#1); in which rabbis of three of these denominations share power in the conversion process (#2); and in which, since the Israeli government grants all three denominations an official role, all three denominations are given government recognition as being legitimate to some degree (#3).

The reasons that this solution is unlikely to work can also be expressed in terms of the three-pronged definition: both #1 and #3 are unacceptable to the extreme left and the extreme right of the Jewish denominational spectrum, both of which consider one another to be immoral and illegitimate, and each of which wishes that the other would disappear. #2 might be acceptable to the extreme left out of a reluctant pragmatism, but is unacceptable to the extreme right, which sees sharing power with non-Orthodox rabbis as being inherently against God's explicit command. All three elements, then, face considerable opposition.

Can a framework so problematic for so much of the relevant population ever be workable? Is pluralism itself inherently impossible in this context? If not, then (to borrow Elazar's phrase) how can the circle be squared?

Contra Adam Bronfman: No, We Are Not All Jews

Seagram heir and Jewish pluralism advocate Adam Bronfman took to the blogosphere today via the JTA, declaring that "We Are All Jews," and denouncing the recently-tabled Israeli conversion bill, which critics charge would solidify Haredi control over Israeli government recognition of conversions, to the exclusion of non-Orthodox (and non-Haredi Orthodox) conversions. Bronfman writes:

[M]y interaction with the Jewish community and my engagement with Jewish foundations and organizations revealed the problematic use of the term “Jewish peoplehood,” or “klal yisrael.” I often despair and wonder if those words have lost their meaning. Is “Jewish peoplehood” a mere fantasy rather than a reality? The Rotem conversion legislation, that recently caused such an uproar, revealed an ongoing and ugly battle. We have narrowly averted a schism.

As a Jew, I was outraged by the proposed legislation. The State of Israel has no business in affiliating with or endorsing one religious group or dogma over another. When it does so it becomes complicit in the internecine strife that plagues our Jewish discourse and abdicates the responsibility it assumed at the time of its creation. That creation was meant to guarantee existential survival for all Jews, regardless of affiliation, style of worship, or geographic location. Regarding Jewish status, it is the government’s sole responsibility to secure and guard that guarantee...

It is high time for the government to get out of the business of legislating religious preference. Mr. Netanyahu must lead us to a decisive conclusion: ALL Jews enjoy equal status in the eyes of the Israeli government. Anything less is failure.

Bronfman's concern for Jewish unity, and his criticism of schismatic interdenominational battles, are noble and correct. I also share the concern of many critics that the Haredi monopoly on Israeli government definitions of Jewish identity (not to mention marriage) has been harmful, and should be revised. And while I am reticent to take a hard position on a bill I do not fully understand, I trust the judgment of many critics who say that the bill in its most recent form would have exacerbated these problems.

But on the most fundamental level of the issue of Jewish peoplehood, Adam Bronfman is unfortunately, simply, deeply wrong: we are not all Jews.

I am not arguing in favor of the current system, much less of the Rotem conversion bill itself. Nor do I disrespect the impulses behind this position. Bronfman and like-minded commentators take a stance which is wrong, but which is also deserving of real consideration. They speak up on behalf of the values of personal choice, pluralism, mutual respect, and acceptance. These are important values, to be sure, and the status quo in Israel is undeniably detrimental to all of them. But these values are not, cannot be, the only values for which we stand. Sometimes values conflict, and difficult choices must be made.

I share Bronfman's "despair," wondering along with him if the words klal Yisrael "have lost their meaning." That value, the meaning of being Jewish, is the very value which, in this case, conflicts with personal choice and complete pluralism. Either being Jewish has a specific meaning or it doesn't. There can be no neutrality on this matter; not to take a position is to take a position. Something that can be defined as anything is nothing.

If being Jewish is nothing more than a nominal affiliation, which can be chosen by anyone under no particular set of standards, devoid of commitments and obligations -- or, if being Jewish entails powerful commitments to morality and justice, but these commitments are all universal, and identical to general values of societal and personal responsibility --  then participation in Jewish life is trivial, and the creation of a Jewish state in the first place, with all the very real problems that nationalism entails, is irrational and dangerous.

Indeed, there is a serious case to be made for the scrapping of all tribal and national identities. Why persist in defining ourselves in groups at all? Why not document all the beautiful contributions of Judaism in our libraries, museums and universities, alongside the contributions of other extinct tribal identities, and let all individuals simply unite as citizens of the world? Many people, and indeed, many secular Jews, do make this argument.

But I suspect that Bronfman is not among them, since he is passionately and deeply involved in the Jewish communal world. I cannot help but assume, therefore, that Bronfman shares my belief that Judaism brings something vital and specific to the world, not only in the past but in the future, and that therefore there is important and unique value in living a Jewish life. And if living a Jewish life has specific value, must it not also have a specific range of content? Is playing frisbee a Jewish activity, if Jews do it? What about reading the telephone book? What about practicing Islam, or Christianity?

One might argue that I miss the point here -- that while Jewish denominations themselves should indeed create definitions of what it means to be Jewish, the Israeli government ought to take a neutral position between those definitions, allowing anyone to define themselves as Jewish, so that the Jewish state can be a home for all those who identify as Jews.

This policy sounds fine in theory. But here I must ask the obvious questions -- the questions which are dragged into this argument often enough to be tiresome, but which I dare not avoid because they remain powerful: are Jews for Jesus to be counted as Jews by the Israeli government? What about Christians completely unaffiliated with Messianic Judaism, but who claim that, in accordance with their theology, the Christian Church is God's new Israel, and that therefore they ought to be counted as Jews by Israel's government? If the answer is to make a policy defining anyone as Jewish who identifies as Jewish, except for those who believe in other religions, then who gets to decide what counts as another religion? The problem is not solved; the can is merely kicked  down the road. Either someone in the Israeli government makes some kind of definition of what it means to be Jewish -- which means giving up on the ideal of complete pluralism -- or no one in the government makes such a definition, and literally anyone in the world can qualify for the Law of Return.

This question is not purely abstract. With Israel currently confronting a number of issues related to immigration, it is not at all out of the realm of possibility that people who have no Jewish ancestry and no genuine interest in becoming Jewish will claim Judaism purely in order to qualify for the Law of Return, for the sake of escaping poverty. (One could hardly fault such a person in desperate circumstances for taking this course of action.)

Perhaps Bronfman doesn't really mean what he says about the Israeli government getting "out of the business of legislating" religion. Perhaps he recognizes that there is a point at which religious definition must be legislated, but he simply wishes that Haredi rabbis did not have a monopoly on this power. If that was his intended point, then I agree.

But the way we frame our arguments matters a great deal. Critics of the current system should be careful not to mount a high horse from which they decry Orthodox insistence on deciding for other people what being Jewish means, unless they are willing to follow their arguments to their logical conclusions and throw open the doors of Jewish identity to all manner of antisemites who claim to be "the real Jews". If these critics are willing to exclude even a single claimant to Jewish identity, for any reason, then that constitutes an endorsement of "one religious group or dogma over another," and the difference between the position of such critics and the position of the Haredim themselves is a difference of degree, not of essence.

If this is the case, it is only honest and proper to admit as much, and to acknowledge that if the torch our people have carried for these thousands of years is worth carrying further, it will require some concessions from the values of complete autonomy and individualism, some willingness to draw lines. That doesn't mean surrender to the Haredi position; the Jewish world can, and should, have real discussions and seek real compromises about where to draw those lines as a community. But in our denominations, in our synagogues, in our organizations -- and yes, in the Israeli government -- draw lines we must, or we are no community at all.

For more perspectives on the question of who is a Jew, click here to see related BJPA-archived articles. As always, this opinion is mine and not the BJPA's. And as always, I welcome all feedback, either of support or of dissent, in the comments section below.

Luntz on Israel Messaging: Empathy, Empathy, Empathy

Last month on this blog I mulled over the question of how Israel advocates should frame pro-Israel messaging. In that post I quoted extensively from a 2003 report by Republican pollster Frank Luntz: Israel in the Age of Eminem - A Creative Brief for Israel Messaging. Last Friday, an interview with Luntz was published in the Jerusalem Post discussing this very topic.

In the interview, Luntz presents many phenomenal communications guidelines he wishes Israel's leaders would follow. Reading them, I wish American Jewish Israel advocates would follow them as well. Some highlights:

 

And that is what I see missing from so much of the [Israeli] communication: the essence of empathy. If I believe that you have the right intent, then I will believe that you have the right policy. But if I perceive that the intent is wrong, then I will never trust you...

 

It is the order of communication that matters... What you say in your first sentence determines how everything else flows. The Israeli communications strategy is to declare a conclusion and then provide the evidence. And I’m asking [the Israelis I’m working with] for exactly the opposite approach: to provide all the evidence and then demonstrate the conclusion...

An example of effective communication: Shimon Peres doesn’t speak like a political scientist. He speaks like a humanitarian. And he speaks in parables that are easily understood and appreciated. And he uses stories that make the information compelling, because no one’s ever heard them before...

Another great line for Israel is to say, “We’re not perfect. Every nation makes mistakes and we have our share. The question you need to ask us is, do we learn from them? And when we learn from them, are we a better people? Are we a better country, having learned from those mistakes?” Once again, Hamas will never admit this...

The No. 1 thing that we recommend is the empathy. Every mom mourns for her child, whether they are Jewish, Christian, Muslim. The loss of any children is the loss of humanity. And so the strongest line there is “Let us work for the day when we will not bury another child.”

I could not agree more with the necessity of demonstrating empathy. One quote in particular, bolded above, is especially interesting to me, and I think it is especially  important. Most people don't pay attention to the fine points of security policy, and I think most people know the limitations of their knowledge about complicated situations. But I think most people also make judgements based on their gut-level readings of who is acting with malicious intent. Too many Israelis, and too many Diaspora Jews, seem to take an emotional stance of defensiveness and hostility towards the world opinion. This only reinforces the image of Israel as a bitter, hostile fringe nation defying world opinion. This may be unfair, but what does that matter? As I said in the June post, it isn't enough to be right.

For more on the importance of the "why" over the "what," see this fascinating speech by Simon Sinek, who opines (at a TED conference) that "people don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it."

Negotiating Civil Liberties: Inclusion for Some

Last week, Lynn Schusterman, chair of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, wrote an op-ed, "Embrace LGBT Jews as vital members of the community" calling on Jewish organizations to enact non-discrimination hiring policies that specifically mention sexual orientation, and called on funders to make their support contingent on the adoption and practice of such policies.

Adopting formal non-discrimination policies -- and ensuring their implementation -- will help us achieve two goals: 1, they will indicate to LGBT individuals that the Jewish community is committed to full LGBT inclusion; and 2, they will guarantee that our institutions are walking the talk when it comes to being welcoming and diverse.

This week, Nathan Diament, director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Orthodox Union, wrote a response, "Don’t exclude in the name of inclusion", arguing that the religious values of Orthodox organizations require them to practice discriminatory hiring based on sexual orientation. Therefore,  Schusterman's suggestion, if fully enacted, would result in a severe reduction of funding to Orthodox institutions.

Logical.

As it happens, the government of the United States of America has this same problem!

For over a decade, some in Congress have been trying to pass ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act), an act that makes sexual orientation and gender identity protected grounds for non-discrimination. As Schusterman, notes, thousands of Jews have lobbied in support of that act. As Diament notes, some of those Jews lobbied in support of an exception for religious organizations to permit them to keep legally discriminating based on sexual orientation and gender identity. (That exception is incorporated into the current version of the act).

According to Diament, that exception "protects the right of religious communities to make their own employment decisions in this sensitive area.” In contrast, Schusterman's proposal to Jewish donors would "admittedly in the private sphere, champion gay rights over religious liberty without even acknowledging the competing values, let alone trying to strike a balance between them" and "expand some civil rights at the expense of others." In effect, he accuses Schusterman of hypocrisy.

In fact, several Jewish organizations (Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and the National Council of Jewish Women) recently collaborated on an amicus brief[pdf] (in a case about whether universities that receive government funding could provide support to student groups that practice discrimination), and specifically mentioned the spectre of the exemption of religious organizations that receive federal funding from non-discrimination requirements as an outcome to be avoided (in that case, discrimination based on religion, as opposed to sexuality).

So Shusterman is advocating for the same policy for Jewish funders as these Jewish organizations advocated for government funders. On the other hand, the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America and Agudath Israel of America supported the opposing amicus brief[pdf].

I don't see hypocrisy here - I see different (and consistent) views on how the balance between religious liberty and gay rights (as Diament puts it) should be struck. The ADL, JCPA, and NCJW strike in favor of gay rights, and the OU and Agudath Israel strike in favor of religious liberties.

Because what Diament obscures ("The Orthodox Union is on record supporting carefully crafted initiatives that seek to ensure principles of tolerance, anti-discrimination and the fair treatment of all citizens") is that only one value can predominate. In both cases, CLS v. Martinez, and in the case of Shusterman's proposal, the OU is on the record supporting religious liberties over gay rights.

The OU's consistent position, whether with regard to public or private funding, makes it less surprising that would Diament would uncritically equate an act of the federal government to the act of a private organization. One key difference, of course, is that if Schusterman's proposal were enacted, Orthodox institutions could continue to seek funding from Orthodox donors whereas religious organizations could not so easily escape the jurisdiction of the American government.

But there is an even bigger problem with Diament's conflation of the religious liberties of religious organizations versus the government and the religious liberties Orthodox organizations versus private Jewish funders:

Diament is in fact arguing is that religious liberty should allow Orthodox Jews to discriminate against gays and lesbians, but that private Jewish (non-Orthodox) funders should not have the religious liberty to 'discriminate' in favor of civil rights for gays and lesbians.

This position holds water if you believe that Orthodox Judaism represents a legitimate religious conviction worthy of protection and non-Orthodox Judaism does not.

Diament also makes an ethical/fraternal argument that Jews who donate to Jewish organizations (whether $5 to their local federation or $2M in the care of their own foundation) have an obligation to support Orthodox institutions that discriminate against lesbians and gays - not doing so would "inflict real harm upon many already underfunded schools and other charities and those they serve [and] would drive a wedge through the heart of those institutions designed to bring our diverse community together." Yet, he makes no argument that Orthodox funding should support Jewish GLBT organizations and is actually arguing that Orthodox institutions must have the right to discriminate against lesbian and gay Jews.

This position holds water if you believe that supporting and including Orthodox Jews is more important than supporting and including gay and lesbian Jews.

I (personally) would suggest (beg, plead, shout, implore) that Lynn Schusterman and others not accept Diament's closing instruction that they must, "if their real goal is liberty and justice for all," follow the example of the Orthodox Union.

(Finally, I invite you to peruse some of BJPA's materials on religious liberty and human rights and LGBT issues which cover a fair variety of perspectives, whereas the opinions here are mine alone).

[Cross-posted at Jewschool]

Being Chosen, Being Distinct

Jewish distinction has been in the news this past week. In a NY Times Op-Ed column, Jewish novelist Michal Chabon (of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen's Union) reacts to the Gaza flotilla affair with a lament that Jews appear to be no smarter than any other people, chosenness notwithstanding. This reaction opens an exploration of the concept of Jewish distinction:

This is, of course, the foundational ambiguity of Judaism and Jewish identity: the idea of chosenness, of exceptionalism, of the treasure that is a curse, the blessing that is a burden, of the setting apart that may presage redemption or extermination. To be chosen has been, all too often in our history, to be culled... Now, with the memory of the Mavi Marmara fresh in our minds, is the time for Jews to confront, at long last, the eternal truth of our stupidity as a people, which I will stack, blunder for blunder, against that of any other nation now or at any time living on this planet of folly, in this world of Chelm.
Leaving aside questions of Jewish superiority, a Newsweek article from June 3rd reports that
the Jews of the Diaspora share a set of telltale genetic markers, supporting the traditional belief that Jews scattered around the world have a common ancestry. But various Diaspora populations have their own distinct genetic signatures, shedding light on their origins and history. In addition to the age-old question of whether Jews are simply people who share a religion or are a distinct population, the scientific verdict is settling on the latter.
The question of Chosenness has long been a sore point for antisemites, a point of affection for philosemites, and, naturally, a point of discomfort for many Jews.

Perhaps most famously, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, rejected the notion of chosenness. As George B. Driesen noted in The Reconstructionist in 1995, Kaplan "believed that the notion of a chosen people conflicts with a non-supernatural conception of divinity." Driesen quotes Kaplan directly as writing that "it is deemed inadvisable, to say the least, to keep alive ideas of racial or national superiority, inasmuch as they are known to exercise a divisive influence, generating suspicion and hatred." Driesen goes on to trace the development of liturgical innovations in the non-Orthodox movements which sought to erase ideas of Jewish chosenness. (For more on the theme of Jewish chosenness as manifested in liturgy, read Gordon M. Freeman's analysis of the prayer Aleinu as a political statement.)

Arnold M. Eisen, now Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, argued in 1990 that the idea of chosenness has been critical to the formation of American Jewish identity, allowing 20th Century American Jews "to make their way, yet remain distinct." This idea, he writes, has "provoked... an outpouring of interpretation, while others (exile, messiah, revelation) were virtually ignored".

What do you think? Is the idea of the Jewish people as the Chosen people an eternal truth, or an outdated concept? Does it imply superiority? Does it imply inferiority? Is it compatible with the notion of human equality? Let's hear some opinions in the comments section.

My own personal view (as always, not reflecting any official position of the BJPA) is that Jewish chosenness need not be seen as implying superiority of any kind. One can just as easily conceive of it as a special responsibility given to the Jews, a responsibility to foster ethical monotheism in the world, but with the knowledge that other peoples, cultures and individuals may also be chosen for other different and important tasks. Indeed, one might say that each person on earth is chosen for a unique and vital purpose. But enough homiletics; what say you?

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